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Malta: The First Military Campaign Fought Entirely by Air Forces

Picture: Hurricanes in the Hangar of a British Aircraft Carrier

When the Regia Aeronautica (RA) began its aerial offensive to neutralize Malta on 11 June 1940, it started the first military campaign fought entirely by air forces. This campaign is mostly forgotten because of the small size of the forces committed (153 bombers and 68 fighters against 6 British fighters initially), but it entailed a serious effort to achieve air supremacy over an island that had 3 airfields (plus a seaplane base) and docks to receive stores and repair large warships (it lacked a war industry however).

The British recognized the six Gloster Gladiators biplane fighters would prove insufficient to defend the island even though on 22 June one of them shot down an SM.79 bomber and another shot down a C.200 fighter the next day without loss. The Italian pilots were trained to fight in the horizontal plane and when facing aircraft that could turn tighter, they were at a disadvantage. The RA grounded the C.200 for some months (until early September) and continued the offensive using the CR. 42 biplane fighters whose turn radius was better than the C.200.

The British started to reinforce the island by flying Hurricanes from aircraft carriers (see the picture). The first five arrived on 21 June and drew first blood on 3 July when they intercepted two reconnaissance SM. 79 escorted by nine CR. 42. A CR. 42 shot down a Hurricane for no loss (first Italian aerial victory of the war). The Brits were also trained to fight in the horizontal plane, and the Hurricane and CR.42 had similar turning circles so the battle could go either way. On 16 July, a Hurricane and a Gladiator fought 12 CR.42 and shot down one for the loss of the Hurricane. After this encounter, the Hurricane pilots were instructed to avoid dogfights and fight on the vertical plane. Another 12 Hurricanes were flown on 2 August forming the basis for the new 261 Squadron.

The Italians, aware of these reinforcements, started to fly fighter sweeps over the island (from 20.000 ft.) with the intention to catch the Hurricanes climbing, but the Hurricanes refused the bait and did not engage the Italians. To avoid being strafed on the ground and to offer some defense to the airfield, the Hurricanes would climb to the south (away from the incoming enemy) until they had sufficient altitude and then would stay relatively close to the Italian fighters but would not initiate the fight.

The first phase of the Italian campaign lasted until 23 Dec 1940. 403 bombing sorties were carried out using horizontal bombing methods mostly and delivering their bombs from 15.000 ft. to avoid the flak. The targets were the airfields and the docks. Additionally, the fighters flew strafing missions against aircraft on the ground. On 5 September, the Italians launched their first dive-bombing mission using Ju 87 bought from the Luftwaffe. The Ju 87s attacked again on the 15th, and the 17th before being sent to another sector.

During 1940, the RA lost over Malta 23 bombers and 12 fighters to destroy 7 British aircraft in the air and other 7 on the ground.

As early as late August, the Italian Air Force (Gen. Lally) believed it had successfully neutralized the island offensive capabilities presenting as proof the lack of bombers or naval units in Malta, and the fact that Italian convoys were reaching their destinations in Africa with minimal interference.

Alas, he was mistaken. None of the airfields had suffered important damage, aircraft losses were minimal, and the dockyard at Valetta and other naval facilities were fully functional. The British, unimpressed by the damage caused by the Italians, ordered aerial and naval offensive units to be based on Malta. On 28 October, 148 Squadron (12 Wellingtons) became the first bombing squadron on the island and the RAF started to bomb targets in Italy and North Africa successfully (for instance, on 7 December, they raided the airfield at Castel Benito in Libya destroying one fighter, 3 bombers and damaging 9 fighters and 12 bombers).

Air superiority is defined (Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms) as “that degree of dominance in the air battle of one force over another which permits the conduct of operations by the former and its related land, sea, and air forces at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing force”.

Using this definition, we can say that the Italians achieved air superiority. After all they executed continuous bombing, strafing, and fighter sweeps over the island with minimal losses. The British did not base offensive air or naval units in the island, and they failed to attack Italian convoys.

However, the Italians did not cause any substantial damage, most of their missions were flown at high altitude to escape the fire of the flak, and only occasionally they attacked from low altitude (a few dive bombing and strafing attacks), so we can say that the British flak had denied the space below 15.000 ft. to the Italians. Also, the victory-to-loss ratio was negative for the RA, and more importantly, the British were so unimpressed by the Italian offensive (their airfields and dockyards remained in operation), that at the time the Italians thought they had neutralized Malta, the RAF decided to base offensive units in the island that quite soon started to make a difference.

Webster and Frankland consider the above definition to be incomplete: “The ability to fly at will over enemy territory, and to some extent prevent the enemy from doing the same, is one aspect of air superiority. It is not just a question of being able to use an air force, but rather a question of being able to use it effectively”.

W&F definition makes more sense for the Malta campaign. We can say that the Italians, although in control, in general, of the volume of air space above 15.000 ft. over Malta, failed to use their air force effectively, since they could not prevent the British from reinforcing the island with offensive air and naval units once they became convinced that the Italian air force posed a low risk.

This early period of the war brought minimal success to the Italians and many defeats and by 20 December, Mussolini felt compelled to ask Hitler for help.

11 June-31 December


Despite appearances to the contrary, Malta was not neutralized. No British warship was sunk or heavily damaged by Italian aircraft.

The island lacked any raw materials or industry and needed to import fuel, food, spares, and personnel. It was highly vulnerable. Nevertheless, even though the island was almost adjacent to Sicily (within half hour flying distance from its airbases) and it was far from Gibraltar and Alexandria, the British continued supplying Malta using ships. The Italian air force failed to enforce a blockade. 


The most important success was the sinking of the light cruiser HMS Calypso by an Italian submarine on 12 June.

Another Italian sub is thought to have helped sink the British destroyer HMS Khartoum (although an investigation indicated that no damage was caused by the sub and instead an internal explosion caused by faulty procedures was the cause)

Eight British submarines were destroyed by Italian ships and mines.

On the negative side, one cruiser (Bartolomeo Colleoni, sunk by HMS Sidney and destroyers), nine destroyers, and 20 submarines were sunk. 3 battleships were damaged during the famous Taranto action, one of which (Counti di Cavour) was never repaired and remained out of action for the remainder of the war. 

Even worse, the submarine force and the Navy's surface fleet failed to implement an effective blockade of Malta.





3 damaged (1 beyond repair)












The Royal Navy attained command of the seas as early as 9 July when the Italian battleships engaged the British battleships willingly for the first and last time. During the skirmish, a shell of the HMS Warspite hit the Italian battleship Cesare from 26.000 yards. The Italians broke-off combat and fled. The Italian navy lost the initiative because its lack of aggression was readily noted by the Royal Navy which embarked in bolder and bolder actions.  

After the disaster of Taranto (where Swordfish damaged 3 Italian battleships), a force of Italian battleships and cruisers attempted to intercept a British fleet that tried to reinforce Malta with aircraft. The British fleet retreated (17 Nov) and was forced to launch 2 Skuas and 12 Hurricanes from a long a distance. One  Skua and eight Hurricanes were lost when they failed to reach the island. This was the only minor success of the Regia Marina. 10 days later, another convoy was successfully protected by the Royal Navy when after a few shots the Italian navy broke-off combat and escaped. 


During this period the Italian Army invaded Egypt, Greece, and British Somaliland.

By the end of the of the year it had been defeated in Egypt and Greece and was on the defensive in the three sectors.

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